Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Forced March

I'm home now, and safe. It was touch and go for a while there, but now that I'm warm and looking back on the whole ordeal, I'm thankful that I came out on the other side. We went trick or treating with a group of nine to twelve year-olds this evening, and there were moments when I doubted my own competence as a parent, an adult, and human being.
We were riding herd on a crew of approximately ten pre-teen boys, with various stages of commitment to the whole costume thing. We had a gypsy, a wizard, a werewolf, an alien, and even an Elvis impersonator. My own son was the legendary Jango Fett, from whom all other clones were spawned - to begin the Clone Wars. His accoutrements were so many and varied that he was inevitably the last up to the door and the last to race back down the sidewalk to catch his partners in crime.
"Dad, can you hold my blaster?"
"Dad, will you carry my jet pack?"
Why not?
"I can't see when I run because my visor gets all fogged up."
Well, okay. Such is the life of a ruthless intergalactic bounty hunter.
We pressed on. I don't know how many miles we walked. The parents eventually limited their movements to only those absolutely necessary to the cause, staying on one side of the street as the kids worked the houses on both sides.
"Those guys were giving out Skittles!"
"Did you get Butterfingers?"
And so it went. Hours drifted by. Well, at least an hour and a half drifted by. Then cooler heads prevailed and we turned our gang back in the direction of the street where our odyssey began. Toward the end, some of the younger kids began to complain. It was dark. It was cold. And the comfort that their swollen bags of candy gave them had worn off several Milky Ways ago. All that was left was the slow trudge back up the hill.
Back inside, all the boys found a place on the floor to empty the contents of their bags, and the sorting began. Once categories had been established, some light bartering began. The trading was only half-hearted, since these kids knew how hard-won these treats really were. They had done the requisite begging, and now the spoils lay in a pile in front of them.
A few of us parental types guessed that each boy had probably bagged a couple of pounds of candy, and with the number of trick or treaters we had in our gang, we assumed our take was nearly twenty pounds. What could that bring on the open market? Better yet, what would it bring tomorrow on the playground?
I know that I'm going to be looking at the same awful Laffy Taffy a month from now, while the Hersheys and Three Musketeers will be long gone. Still, I know it's not the size, it's the principle. The treats have been acquired, and now the trick will be disposing of them.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Heat In The Jungle

I know just how far the most recent homicides in Oakland were from the school where I teach. A number of my students have to walk past the intersection every morning. The tatters of caution tape still hang loosely around the telephone poles and no parking signs. The kids probably don't think about it much, but I do.
This morning I awoke to the news that, according to a survey released Monday by Morgan Quitno Press, an independent research publisher in Lawrence, Kansas, I live in the twenty-fifth most dangerous city in the United States. I'm not sure I really needed the survey to tell me that Oakland can be a scary place. On CNN's Money page, I went straight to the "Quality of Life" section, where I found that the "personal crime risk" for Oakland stands at 258, where the national average, and compares with "best places" that have a personal crime risk of 58. That would be five times greater. The web page helpfully points out that "lower is better." Got it.
Somewhere in the back of my mind, I began to hear an old King Crimson song: "Thela Hun Ginjeet." In the middle of the song, voice recordings are heard. Adrian Belew talks about his experience with members of street gangs and the police, trying to get voice recordings for the song: "Well, first of all, I couldn't even see his face. I couldn't see his face. He was holding a gun in his hand. Umm... I was thinking...This is a dangerous place...This is a dangerous place..."
Still, here's the solace I could take away from this piece of statistical profundity: The top two most dangerous cities on the list? (Insert David Letterman drum roll and flourish here) St. Louis, Missouri and Detroit, Michigan. For those of you who managed to sit through this year's World Series, those two cities might ring a bell. I'm sure that a further study needs to be conducted into the correlation between professional baseball franchises and personal crime risk. Maybe there is a connection to all of that stealing and hitting after all. Just don't hang around the stadium on Bat Day.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

My Twisted Youth

With Halloween quickly approaching, I am filled with memories of Famous Monsters of Filmland. This was the first magazine for which I had a subscription. I saw my first issue of "FM" when I was six years old. My friend had a bunch of old issues that his older brother had given him. I remember the feature article was about "Twenty Million Miles To Earth," a black and white sci-fi romp that featured an amazing lizard created by stop-motion genius, Ray Harryhausen. I spent hours poring over every page, reading the purple prose of editor-in-chief Forrest J. Ackerman. Eventually, my friend got so tired of me asking to see that magazine, he gave it, and a few more back issues.
I became familiar with the layout of the magazine, the regular features, and the cover articles. I talked my mother into buying me a few issues off the newsstand, and I read every page just as carefully as the last. I learned about Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney Senior and Junior, Aside from some very impressive cover paintings, all the pictures inside were black and white. This made plenty of sense, since the films that were being referenced were all "classics." During this period, I was on a steady diet of "Sci-Fi Flix" on Friday nights, and "Creature Features" on Saturday. Friday night always opened with an episode of "Outer Limits," the creepier low-budget version of "Twilight Zone." Saturday night, after the late news came an episode of "Thriller," hosted by Boris Karloff. Many a weekend night ended with me falling asleep in front of the television.
But when I woke up the next day, my nose was back in the pages of FM. Often there were detailed production stories of the films that I watched into the wee hours. Then I bought a subscription, and a new issue of Famous Monsters came to my mailbox once a month. I smiled at the corny puns: "You Axed For It,""Horrorwood, Karloffornia." I began to imagine a career as a make-up artist, like my hero, Jack Pierce. When I saw a picture sent in by a pair of friends of an Abominable Snowman make-up, I couldn't wait to try my own. Those two young men, by the way, were John Landis and Rick Baker.
I suppose the fact that I know who both those people are, and I still follow their careers is a direct result of my experience with Forrest J. Ackerman. He is now a few weeks shy of his ninetieth birthday, and living in a scaled-down version of the legendary "Ackermansion." He is widely recognized as the man who coined the term "sci-fi." He kept a world of film alive for a generation before the advent of video tapes or discs. When a weasel decided to bring FM back from the dead, he initially brought Forry back for the relaunch. Ten issues later, he quit and began a lengthy libel suit against the new publisher. That cost him enough money that many of the treasures originally maintained in his massive home had to be sold or auctioned off the legal bills. "Dr. Acula" (as he often refers to himself) is still holding court, inviting fans to drop by for tricks or treats 4511 Russell Avenue, Los Angeles, Karloffornia. Drop by if you can. I'm sure he's been dying to see you.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

9.8 meters/sec/sec

I miss the full-on hedonism of the Halloween parties of my youth. I spent the day selling pumpkins to the students and parents of my son's elementary school. It was a pretty tame affair. There was no grain alcohol involved, so immediately the comparisons were few and far between. To be more precise, when I was in college I want to believe that we were in full-on bacchanalia mode. The Harvest Festival (more politically correct than Halloween) was a giddy good time, but no one was ever in danger.
What sort of danger am I talking about? There was a little game we called "If You Catch It, You Can Keep It." It was an homage to an old National Lampoon bit, a TV game show parody where audience members try to catch valuable prizes (including electric knives, dinette sets, even a house) thrown down from the top of the CBS building. I lived on the fourth floor of my apartment building. Some very intrepid high school girls called up to us from below, unable to gain entrance. "Hey girls," I shouted down at their upturned faces, "Want to play a little game?"
"Can you buzz us in?"
"It's called, "If You Catch It, You Can Keep It." I had a barbell set out on the balcony. There was about a hundred pounds on the bar.
"If You Catch It, You Can Keep It."
"Get ready, here comes your first prize opportunity, a deluxe weight training set from Sears!" Over my head, off the balcony, hurtling toward their dazed little heads, gaining speed with the acceleration of gravity. Four floors. In the dark.
"What?" Then shrieks as the weights crashed to the ground just in front of them.
"Oh, I'm very sorry girls. There will be no prizes awarded tonight."
Very quiet, then: "Can you buzz us in?"
They came for the Wapatootie Punch (with the big frozen fish ice cube), but they stayed for the casual abuse. Sometimes people ask me why I stopped drinking. Maybe you should ask some of these girls.

Friday, October 27, 2006

OK Computer

There was a time when I wasn't so all fired up about this whole technology thing. I had my legal pad and my Bic stick ball-point pens (black, always). I couldn't imagine composing on a keyboard - so cold and impersonal. I had an electric typewriter for those nights that required a flurry of pages, the kind that professors wanted to see. Still, I chuckled derisively at the notion of a "personal" computer. Personal? Cold and distant and in no way personal machine.
Then I took a job at a video store. All the record keeping was done on computers: tapes, customers, late fees - all of them stored in a box that hummed and was always on. Sometimes the clever video monkeys would stay late and "run backups." They could have been turning lead into gold for all I knew. I just expected the wand to zip across the bar code on the copy of "Birdy" I was renting to customer #0278 and the screen in front of me would tell me that "The Berenstain Bears Worship Satan" was sixty-five days overdue. As long as there was light and sound, there wasn't a problem.
Until one day when there was no light or sound. I had just been made a management type, and I was in charge of a store that had a computer full of information that we couldn't get at because it was broken. Suddenly I was tossed into the deep end of computer maintenance. Luckily, a family friend who had once taken me up to the National Bureau of Standards to show me the massive paper and tape spewing machines of the late sixties, appeared as the font of knowledge that would eventually rescue me from what I came to understand was a "hard drive crash."
I lived through it. I resurfaced the disc. I ran DOS commands. I answered prompts and got the data restored with a couple of days' effort. It had a certain macho appeal, not unlike the first time I changed my own spark plugs. I was the master of the machine.
When the video store closed, it became apparent that I was still lacking what would be considered "marketable skills," unless an encyclopedic knowledge of horror film and a fondness for Chocodiles made me more employable. I called once again on my computer guru to hook me up with some basic word processing and spread sheet prowess. I learned most of the keyboard commands for Wordstar 3.0, and was briefly confounded by Lotus. Then I took my fledgling abilities out into the world. I got a job installing modular office furniture, which brought me in contact with many computers, most of which were sitting on top of desks that I was supposed to move from one side of an office to another.
But I started dropping by my mom's house to use her computer. I wrote stories. I typed resumes. I practiced. It was still another four years before I would use a computer professionally. When I moved to California, I got a job running a book warehouse. A warehouse that was ruled by a computer. When the computer acted up, we had tech guys who wrestled it to the ground and beat it back into shape, but since my job relied on theirs, I kept my nose in their business. It brought me a fuller understanding of Unix and other exciting arcane bits of programming that had eluded me elsewhere. For the record, I still don't understand Unix, but I could pick it out in a lineup.
All of this history allowed me to say, with a straight face, that I had "computer experience" when it came time to interview for a teaching job. That's how I became the computer teacher at Horace Mann. I put together a lab full of Mac LCIIs and dot matrix printers. They were connected with Apple Talk cables. Kids came to my room and made pretty pictures with KidPix. They were sad when they weren't allowed to print out dozens of copies of their pre-fab drawings.
Then I built a new PC lab, with Internet access and a network printer. Kids came to my room and I taught them to type, and they made pretty pictures with KidPix. Then the world changed again, and I became a fourth grade teacher to avoid having to travel between several locations and teaching PE, music and art in schools across east Oakland. The computer lab was packed into a storage container, and there it stayed for three years. During this time, I remained the nominal "tech guy." If it had a plug, and it didn't work, you called Mister Caven.
Today I remain the tech guy at our school. Some of our newer teachers show up with less fear of the box with lights and sound. They understand that it's there to help them. They know it's nothing personal. Thank God.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Why I Hate Freedom

Question: How many Bush administration officials does it take to change a light bulb?

Answer: None. There is nothing wrong with the light bulb; its conditions are improving every day. Any reports of its lack of incandescence are a delusional spin from the liberal media. There is no shortage of filament. That light bulb has served honorably, and anything you say undermines the lighting effect. Why do you hate freedom?

And so it goes. That's the joke, right? Well Donald "Mister Yuks" Rumsfeld said Thursday that anyone demanding deadlines for progress in Iraq should "just back off," because it is too difficult to predict when Iraqis will resume control of their country. I confess that when I hear Jon Stewart doing his impersonation of President Pinhead, I almost always picture Yosemite Sam as our Chief Executive. Now when I think of Rummy, I'll be thinking of Yosemite Sam again, but as a pair of those slightly ubiquitous mud flaps from the late seventies.
Up the road a piece, President Pinhead expressed "disappointment" with the progress in the war. Disappointment. I'm disappointed when the books I order from Amazon.com don't come before the weekend. I'm disappointed when I have to buy a whole album on iTunes to get the one song I really want. I'm disappointed when I have to settle for cauliflower when I really had my heart set on broccoli. Ninety-six Americans dead in combat so far this month. Disappointed? Time to break out the thesaurus, Pinhead.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Long Shot

"It's a pretty, I think, widely accepted statistic that if you carry a gun, your chances of being shot by one increase dramatically." That is the kind of statement that usually starts a lengthy debate involving the Second Amendment (A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed). David Stern is certainly not the first American to assert this, but he is most certainly the first Commissioner of the National Basketball Association to do so.
The NBA's collective bargaining agreement allows players to own licensed guns, but they can't carry them on any league or team business. Man to man defense should be effective enough for most instances involving threats like a three-point shot or your average fast break. Why all the fuss right now? Indiana's Stephen Jackson shot a gun in the air at least five times outside an Indianapolis strip club on October sixth. He originally told police he fired in self-defense during a fight in which he was hit by a car. The question that enters my mind abruptly is this: What did the air do to him? Why wasn't he at least shooting at the car? Maybe he's just a really bad shot.
A few years back, Smith and Wesson, the world's largest handgun manufacturer, began marketing a line of golf clubs - as well as a mountain bike "just like the cops on the beat ride." All of this cross-promotion just brings one event to mind: The Biathlon. That would be the winter sport that combines cross-country skiing and rifle shooting. Perhaps instead of limiting the use of firearms at sporting arenas, the Commissioner could encourage more. A few creative rule changes that would allow shots to be blocked by blowing them out of the air, or a strategy that involves laying down a spray of suppressing fire as the ball is being pushed up the court. Let's take our best shot and make the NBA the sport of the new millennium!

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Wondering Around

What is really wondrous about our modern world? According to those in the know, starting with a group called the American Society of Civil Engineers, this list should include the Channel Tunnel (England & France), the CN Tower (Toronto), our own Empire State Building (New York) and Golden Gate Bridge (San Francisco), the Itaipu Dam (Brazil/Paraguay), Netherlands' North Sea Protection Works (Netherlands), Panama's eponymous Canal. Kind of tough to argue with that - from an engineering standpoint, anyway. It compares easily to the list of Ancient Wonders: The Pyramids of Egypt, The Hanging Gardens of Babylon, The Statue of Zeus at Olympia, The Colossus of Rhodes, The Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, The Mausoleum of Helicarnassus, and the Pharos (Lighthouse) of Alexandria. All pretty snazzy creations in their time, wouldn't you agree?
There are those who would include the Statue of Liberty on the new list. Or the Sydney Opera House. Just recently, Stonehenge has been getting a big push to join the list. Way to go, you nutty druids!
Still, I have a hard time getting out of town, let alone across the United States, or around the world. I would prefer a more concise list. That's why I suggest a more relevant list, for me.
The Seven Wonders of Dave's World:
Velcro - Can you believe people used to button things, or tie their shoes?
Twinkies - In the event of an atomic war, they become legal tender for surviving cockroaches.
William Shatner's Toupee - Much more versatile and enduring than Bill himself.
Tivo - Now you can watch TV all day and only watch the commercials that your wife thinks are really funny.
Sawzall - I always knew that home demolition would be fulfilling, but a reciprocating saw means never having to say you're sorry.
Call Waiting - Now you have an excuse for hanging up.
I don't know about you, but this list keeps me wondering.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Pinhead Rhetoric

President Pinhead has retired a piece of his rhetoric. On August 30, when he vowed: "We will stay the course, we will help this young Iraqi democracy succeed, and victory in Iraq will be a major ideological triumph" in the war on terrorism, he gave up one of his favorite pet phrases. We won't have "stay the course" to kick around anymore. "He's stopped using it," said spokesman Tony Snow. "It allowed critics to say, well, here's an administration that's just embarked upon a policy and not looking at what the situation is, when, in fact, it's just the opposite."
Let's see - if Pinhead stops saying "stay the course" it means that he's doing just the opposite, is that it? Or does it mean that if he stops saying "stay the course" that he can continue to do it, but we just won't call it that? If we stop saying "world hunger," does that mean that it will cease to exist as well - as a policy, at least?
My tiny left-leaning liberal mind is confounded by an administration that continues to ask for support on a task that they seem unwilling to describe fully. World War Two had a fairly clear objective. After Hitler painted the bunker with his own gray matter, things were pretty much over. Dismantling Japan's war-making capabilities brought about VJ Day. In Iraq, it would seem that we need to rebuild the things that we blew up, and the things that have been blown up in the days since our mission was initially achieved. And we need to make sure they can defend themselves against the ongoing insurgency. And the lights and plumbing. And democracy should flourish. That would be the Popular War, as opposed to the ever-present-liberal-media-infused Unpopular War. You know the one. The Unpopular War is the one where lives are being lost daily for vague notions and uncertain ideals. If we are really there to put up a big filling station and bleed Iraq dry as we bivouac in the desert, anticipating Armageddon - say it. Then we know what course we're staying - or in this case, not.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

If Failure Is Not An Option, Are All Options Still On The Table?

Hello, and welcome to another installment of America's favorite game show, "You Don't Say?" In today's episode, we'll be examining a senior U.S. diplomat's comments that surfaced this weekend: The United States has shown "arrogance" and "stupidity" in Iraq. Let's hear it, studio audience - "You Don't Say?"
With seventy-eight casualties in the month of October, President Pinhead has suggested that he was flexible on tactics, if not strategy. Let's hear it from the cheap seats - "You Don't Say?"
Senior U.S. State Department official Alberto Fernandez said this, exactly: "We tried to do our best (in Iraq) but I think there is much room for criticism because, undoubtedly, there was arrogance and there was stupidity from the United States in Iraq." Much room for criticism? Come on, you don't need me to tell you - "You Don't Say?"
Isn't that stepping out of line, just a little bit? "What he (Fernandez) says is that it is not an accurate quote," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said. Asked whether he thought the United States would be judged as being arrogant, McCormack said "No." The problem, it seems lies in the translation of the comments posted on Al Jazeera's English language Web site. They had misquoted its director of public diplomacy in the bureau of Near Eastern affairs. Let 'em hear you outside - "You Don't Say?"
Be sure to tune in next time as we examine President Pinhead's radio address, in which he maintained, "We will continue to be flexible, and make every necessary change to prevail in this struggle." You don't say?

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Aloha, Spoonman

Spoony Singh died. He was eighty-three years old. What's that? You don't recognize the name? You'll have a chance to get to know him in the afterlife, at least his likeness. Spoony was the founder of the Hollywood Wax Museum. He once said that he founded the world famous Hollywood Wax Museum to give tourists who couldn't find any real celebrities in Hollywood the next best thing. If staring at a moderate likeness of Angelina Jolie who is in turn staring off into the void, then this would be the place for you.
And not only that - Spoony Singh is also the twisted genius behind the Hollywood Guinness World Records Museum, as well as another Hollywood Wax Museum in Branson, Missouri. The latter being Hollywood primarily in name, but perhaps in spirit as well. From the "Seeing Stars" web site: "For the most part, the Guinness museum does not try to exploit the bizarre and freakish aspects of life, as its neighbor Ripley's does. While you may see displays about the world's tallest or heaviest people here, you will find nothing to compare to, say, the disgusting bottle of 'fetal mice wine' which is on display at the Ripley's next door. There are, fortunately, no shrunken heads or six-legged pigs here." Still, what could be more Hollywood than fetal mice wine?
As Spoony himself said in 1970, "Look, I know other museums are more stately and artistic, but on Hollywood Boulevard, dignity kind of gets lost in the shuffle." Amen, Spoony. Amen.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Putting Your Finger On It

Another finger has appeared in a fast food item. More to the point, a severed finger was found in a Subway sandwich. Okay - allegedly severed in an alleged Subway alleged sandwich, found allegedly. We won't know the truth until it has been drained of all it's life force and money by a sizable pack of litigators and health department officials.
What's the big deal? Considering the number of fast food sandwiches flying over the counters in California alone each day, isn't it quite impressive that we only get to hear about this once a year or so? I myself came perilously close to sweetening the mix of a certain Roast Beef (Yes Sir) restaurant's menu with my one of my own digits. The first day of training (OJT for "on the job training) we were given a harsh and vivid demonstration of the vicious reality of the meat slicer. A sponge was brushed lightly across the blade and it fell cleanly in half with the slightest pressure. I made it a note to be afraid and very cautious around this particular device.
Years of service and the regular donning of a brown polyester vest dulled my instincts, and the slicer became a matter of fact in my life. Every so often, when new employees were subjected to the sponge-lopping demonstration, my awe was briefly renewed, but those hungry IBMers weren't going to wait while I worked up my courage to slice enough beef for their sandwiches. I had to make friends with the machine and put my fear aside.
Every night, the slicer had to be taken apart and cleaned to near sterile - not exactly sterile, but cleaner than most other items near it. We had a pair of chain mail gloves for just such a purpose, and I conscientiously wore them each and every time I was left with that chore. Except for the night that I didn't, and I nearly lost the ring finger on my left hand.
It had been a typically busy Saturday night, when we stayed open past midnight, with the usual parade of hungry drunk boys and their dates. At last it was time to close out the slicer and the shake machine, leaving just enough shake mix and cut beef for the last few stragglers before we locked the doors. As closing manager, it was my responsibility to make sure that the books were done and the registers were ready for the following day, so I chose to clean the slicer because it was closer to the back room - the desk and the safe. I prepared my cleaning bucket, sponges and looked briefly for the special gloves.
Like most lost things, I am sure they were merely overlooked, but my haphazard and rushed attempt to find them was fruitless, so I decided to move ahead sans protection. I had cleaned the slicer dozens of time, and I knew that there was only a very short period of time that my hands might actually be in peril. But you already know what happened. I only made a small error, and the back of my finger slipped past the blade. For just a moment, I had the sensation of biting down on an ice cube with a filling, but it came from my left hand, not my teeth. It cut to the bone as easily as the sacrificial sponge of yore. It bled less than I might have expected. That isn't to say that it did not bleed. It was briefly quite gory.
I'm a company guy, and I don't abandon my post. The two other guys who were working with me urged me to go to the emergency room. "And who's going to do the books? You two?" The notion that the books could have been done after my hand had been stitched up or even the next morning didn't come fully to me until the next day. I washed the wound and dressed it with a wad of gauze, three paper towels and a hand full of rubber bands. The rest of the crew busied themselves scrubbing up the scene of the crime, and I headed for the desk where I did my best to hold my throbbing hand above my heart, since I imagined that this would keep me from bleeding to death.
I survived. I carry the scar. I live with this story of ridiculous commitment, and I still wince when I think about just how close my finger came to being a statistic. Next time you're in a Subway shop, watch how careful those guys are with their knives. Like I said, it's kind of amazing that it doesn't happen more often.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Lunch Detention

What is the phrase about a goose walking over your grave? I'm not sure exactly what it means if you're not already in the ground, but I believe it suggests a feeling of unease to the extreme - chills, even. This being the case, I suspect there was a flock of Canadian Snow Geese doing a flamenco on top of my headstone this afternoon as I walked my class up to lunch.
Entering the cafeteria, my gaze lofted over the heads of the elementary crowd, scanning for adults that I might to speak to - or avoid in a few specific cases. When I realized that I had no immediate communication commitments, I settled in to the quiet observation of my students as they passed in one door of the kitchen, emerging scant seconds later, carrying cardboard trays full of sanitarily wrapped food-like items, and a milk.
There was a fifth grade class ahead of us, so I took up a position where I could watch the line snake toward our lunch supervisor who checked names and numbers as they passed by. Then I turned around and came face to face with him. Him who? He was a fourth grader the last time I saw him. He is now in fifth. He looked a little taller, but not much. He also appeared to have been getting fed more regularly, as his face had filled out, and his eyes didn't seem as hollow.
This was a kid who had been given a ticket out of our school a year ago, and had moved just one step ahead of being told he couldn't come back. Ever. Now he is back. This is the boy who drew pictures of guns and knives on papers, books, and desks. He was the one who was rumored to be carrying a gun in his backpack and my first reaction wasn't to assume it was a toy. It was, after all, and much to all of our great relief - but it was that moment that set my heart racing just ahead of my mind. This was the kid that could do that thing. I had spent months with him, trying to find a way in, then trying to find a way to keep him and the rest of us safe.
I told him that I was glad to see him. I want that not to be a lie. I want to believe that the past few months have given him a chance to use his above average intellect for good, and not evil. I want to believe that he has grown, and so have I. Stephen King once wrote a story called "Sometimes They Come Back." It appears in his "Night Shift" collection. It tells the story of a teacher who deals with demons from his past through demons sent to his class. I hadn't thought of that story for years. Until today. Happy Halloween.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Miner Threat

"I don't know what weapons World War Three will be fought with, but World War four will be fought with sticks and stones. " - Albert Einstein
You may be pleased to hear that this event has occurred, and North Korea didn't even light the fuse. Indians wielding war clubs and bows and arrows stormed an Amazon mining complex, shutting it down in an apparent demand for more compensation from the world's largest iron ore miner. Approximately two hundred Indians from the Xikrin tribe occupied the company town of Carajas, and proceeded to shut down Brazil's CVRD daily production of 275,000 tons of iron ore. Hundreds of workers were kept from leaving for home when the Indians seized the keys of buses that transport employees to and from the mining complex.
Eight months ago, Indian tribes blocked a railroad from Carajas in protests over health care. Hear that, Hillary? Legislation is just one way to make health care affordable. Meanwhile, CVRD called the invasion a form of extortion, and said it could result in the cancellation of the social-development deal. Better watch out, or they'll stop oppressing their culture on yours, you silly indigenous people, you. As Albert Einstein once said, "In order to form an immaculate member of a flock of sheep one must, above all, be a sheep." The Xikrin may be a lot of things, but sheep? I'm guessing not.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Truth And Politics

I'll wait here a moment as you stifle your snickers at the title. Done? Okay, let's move on: There are a bushel of propositions on the California ballot this November, and I confess that each time I have found a place to stand that feels correct, a new breeze blows in and I feel the need to assess the new information. Then I wonder when truth became so subjective.
Proposition 86 would raise the state cigarette excise tax by $2.60 a pack. Before I read any of the literature or watched any TV ads, this is how it looked to me: Charging more for a habit that should be discouraged (addiction, if you will) seemed like a pretty fair notion. It might even provide someone on the edge with a reason to quit. There aren't a lot of taxes that we get to choose to pay, so that had its own fun little spin. Now the scary part: There must be a pretty solid market out there still for cigarettes if the government is willing to attach future earnings to it. What would smokers be paying for? Health care programs. Still making sense, right? Commercials for the No on 86 campaign have been arguing that much of the money taxed from tobacco firms won't go toward anti-smoking efforts, but would rather enrich large hospitals. In my mind I can picture hospital bureaucrats not lighting cigars with fifty dollar bills.
Proposition 87 would tax oil production in California. Sounds like a similar pattern: Tax a dangerous addiction to get money back from what is essentially a closed system. When the wells run dry, we'll be glad that we managed to keep some of that money here in our state. Opponents of Proposition 87 have been trumpeting that taxing oil production in California will simply drive up the price of gas at the pump. My knee-jerk reaction (I have quite a jerky knee around election time) is to ask what, if anything, does not drive up the price of gas at the pump?
Maybe I'm not the guy you should trust on this either, since I get paid from your taxes. Thank you for the raise, by the way. But if you're not going to trust me, would you rather trust Philip Morris? Or Chevron? Stay tuned. The truth is out there.

Monday, October 16, 2006

An Unmarried Woman - and Man

Listen: A new survey has shown that traditional marriage has ceased to be the preferred living arrangement in the majority of U.S. households. This leaves open the possibility that there are still those married folks who continue to be married, but just don't prefer it. But seriously folks, what does this mean? In nearly 55.8 million American households, Father doesn't necessarily know best. Instead, more than 14 million of them are headed by single women, another five million by single men, while 36.7 million belonged to a category described as "nonfamily households," a term that experts said referred primarily to gay or heterosexual couples cohabiting out of formal wedlock.
This would be the end of the world as Jerry Falwell knows it, and I feel fine. I confess that I travel in a pretty traditional circle, with a lot of very highly functioning families of a pretty traditional sort. That said, I can also say that I spend the day with a room full of nine and ten year olds whose experience is anything but traditional. I expect that when I call home that I will most likely reach somebody's mom before I speak to a dad, and there are a great many kids living with their grandparents - while mom and dad finish growing up.
You might think that this leads to a lot of dysfunctional behavior and challenges in the classroom as well as at home. I'm here to tell you that having a "traditional family" in no way ensures any kind of advanced academic standing or personal conduct. Sometimes having two parents just ensures twice as much bad input.
Douglas Besharov, a sociologist with the American Enterprise Institute had this to say: "Overall, what I see is a situation in which people - especially children - will be much more isolated, because not only will their parents both be working, but they'll have fewer siblings, fewer cousins, fewer aunts and uncles," the scholar argued. "So over time, we're moving towards a much more individualistic society."
So, three cheers for the individual, or just a quiet one, since it's still my night to put my son to bed.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

The Off-Season

Magglio Ordonez spoiled my son's afternoon. Or at least part of it. When Detroit's right fielder lifted Huston Street's pitch high into the midwest sky, the Oakland A's season came to an end. My son watched the home run. Then he watched the replay, just to be certain that the ball really cleared the fence in left field. The Athletics were going home and the Tigers were going to the World Series. "Darn!" he said, using his most effective expletive, "Darn! Darn! Darn!" He stomped out of the room and slammed the door behind him. I let him alone with his feelings.
This was the first year that my son was seriously affected by the spectator sports bug. I take complete responsibility for it, and only wish that I could have found a way to cushion this latest blow. The A's are his team. He attended his first game when he was only a month old. Since that time, his focus has increased right along with his appreciation of the game. He has a dozen team pennants hanging on the wall next to his bed, with the green and yellow Oakland team banner right above his head. He has begun collecting baseball cards. He liked Frank "The Big Hurt" Thomas, but his favorite player was Nick Swisher. These two guys took an ill-timed vacation from hitting during the American League Championship Series, combining for just one hit in four games.
Still, yesterday we watched our team battle to a 3-3 tie in the bottom of the ninth inning. There was still hope for extra innings. Then a history making four game return to glory, and a trip to the Fall Classic. Instead, Street gave up two singles with two outs - and then Ordonez sent the Detroit fans out into the streets to party the way American League Champions do. My son went to the television in his parents' bedroom and watched an episode of "Transformers." He learned the lesson of baseball fans for more than one hundred years: There's always next year. But for now, there are robots in disguise.

Saturday, October 14, 2006


Something about the gray sky the last couple of mornings should have tipped me off. I woke up today after spending a great deal of dream time at my childhood friend's funeral. I was a little frustrated by this event, since I have consciously moved over the past several years to make October about something besides mortality. Just last night my wife was asking me, "How's your month so far?" I told her that I was fine and hadn't really given it much of a thought - until then - so I suppose I could blame her for the dark and dreary night that I spent inside the church of my mind. Or maybe it was there all along, just waiting to surface.
No matter, since it's here, why not drag it out into the light and take a look at it? I am glad that the past few years have made me less morose, if not more contemplative. And if I were to spend any time during the year contemplating life and death, autumn makes perfect sense. Days grow shorter. Leaves fall from trees. The weather grows colder. It's a metaphor, get it?
Why not? Many moons ago, I got some great advice from a therapist about this time of year: "All relationships end," she told me, "so revel in the moments that you have together."A simple enough sentiment. It could easily be stitched into a pillow or worn on a T-shirt, but no one had bothered to say it to me in so many words. Or maybe I hadn't been listening. It was about that same time when a friend of mine, sensing my autumnal distress, brought me a vivid selection of fallen leaves she had collected. She intended it as a reminder of the beauty found in October - in the passing of the year. I pressed them between the pages of my Webster's Unabridged Dictionary, under "fall." Right between "faith healing" and "familiar." They're still there, faded only slightly, still holding their color.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Wet Cleanup In Room Four

Firemen came to my classroom yesterday. They came because I called them. I had to call them weeks in advance, but they were prepared when they got there. It wasn't any sort of emergency. My students were prepared too. They asked questions about Risks and Consequences - the them of our language arts unit. As is most often the case, they were on their best behavior since it was anybody but Mister Caven they had to listen to. When we had finished with the interview portion, we went outside to examine the fire engine.
The kids all got to take a turn squirting a real fire hose, and they got to climb inside the engine. I learned the distinction between fire trucks and fire engines: Trucks are rolling toolboxes, while engines carry their own water. You're never too old to learn. Then it was time to go home for a three day weekend. I felt very smug in the notion that just about every single one of my students would have something to tell their parents about what they learned in school that day. I was that pretty cool teacher - if only for that afternoon.
Contrast this to Philip Frandino, a fifth-grade teacher in Charleston, South Carolina who allowed five students — a boy and four girls — to use a trash can as a toilet during a school lockdown drill when no one was supposed to leave the classroom. Oops. When a girl used the bathroom, other girls held up jackets to shield the view while other students stood on the opposite wall with their backs turned. Boys also did the same for the boy. Maybe the fifth grade was working on a unit about survival. Or staging a class version of "Lord of the Flies." Or maybe Phil won't be getting that Teacher of the Year certificate for this go-round. "We always learn something" during lockdown drills, school district spokesman Jerry Adams said Friday. "And clearly communications between the classrooms and the main office to get directions on things was one of the issues here." Well good - as long as there was learning going on. My suggestion: Next time stick with the fire fighters. It's an easier cleanup.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Stupid Human Tricks

My mother used to call it "tormenting the dog." Here at our house, we call it "practical jokes on lower life forms." I can't speak to the motivations of cat owners, but I know that most dog people take a certain measure of reassurance in knowing that they are smarter than their pet. Back in the olden days, when I lived with a dachshund who periodically seemed to control much more of our family's activities than always seemed appropriate, I looked for ways to level the household karma.
Like most dogs, Rupert was a food slut. There wasn't much that he wouldn't put himself through for a Milk Bone or a pizza crust. Knowing this gave me an absurd amount of leverage. Many was the time that I would hold my hand out, fingers pinched together just above his upturned nose. "Wanna treat?" I asked in my cheerful-reward voice. There was no treat there, but Rupert would prop himself up on his back legs and look at me expectantly. Then I would lower my hand down to his mouth where he would lick and nibble frantically for a moment or two before the realization would hit him: "There is no treat there." Do I feel bad about this? A little.
Another game we used to play around our house was "Bet You Can't Catch Me." Because of Rupert's very aerodynamic and low to the ground build, the answer was usually "no." If he made it out the front door, there was a minimum of half an hour's chase around the field at the end of our street before he had enough fun to head on home. After several years of this ridiculous pursuit, it occurred to us that there was another tragic flaw that we could exploit: The Car. Instead of giving chase, we would walk to the driveway and open the hatch of my mom's VW squareback. Rupert would slam on the brakes, and dive headlong into the car bounding over the seats until he reached his favorite spot - shotgun.
Now that he's gone, I sometimes wish I had played it more straight down the middle with Rupert. But he gave as good as he got - eating our plastic army men or leaving a mess where only a bare foot could find it. These days I have a dog who will always bark for the doorbell - even when she is watching me ring it. She's also the one who takes off like a shot for the back yard every single time I ask her, "Wanna go get the cat?" Cruel? Maybe, but I know who buys the kibble.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Plane Crazy

Be honest: When you saw the headline about the plane hitting the high-rise in Manhattan, you flinched - just a little. Not the way the folks out in New York City flinched, but I know I winced. New York Yankee Cory Lidle slammed the small plane he was flying into a fifty-story skyscraper Wednesday, killing the pitcher and a second person in a crash that rained flaming debris onto the sidewalks and briefly raised fears of another terrorist attack.
New York Yankees and small planes don't have a terrific track record. Thurman Munson, Yankee catcher, crashed the plane he was flying in 1979. Add Roberto Clemente to that list and the American League is still ahead two to one.
I'm not a fan of little planes. My father died after the one he was riding in caught a power line and flipped just short of the runway. That was some years before September 11, 2001, and it was in rural Colorado - not downtown Manhattan. Not that it matters, really. Even a single engine prop plane makes a pretty nasty mess when they fall from the sky - from any height. Add more coincidence to this story with the anecdote about my father's boss and another co-worker who missed the end of another runway when my dad was still new to the company. Both men died. The sad irony was that he was initially upset about the fact that he was being left behind. Jim Croce. Buddy Holly. John Denver. Singers don't do very well in aircraft with less than twenty seats either.
How eerie is it really? Not that much. Sad, but not that strange. If man were meant to fly, he'd fly business class. Or something like that.
"On a large enough time line, the survival rate for everyone will drop to zero." - Chuck Palahniuk, "Fight Club"

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Back To You In The Booth, Bryant

There have been a lot of vicarious sports thrills around my house lately. I have written about all manner of spectator sports over the past year or so, but I have failed to mention just how important sportscasters are in my world. There aren't a lot of them that are any good at all, so it bears mentioning when there are some good ones.
Dan Jenkins, in "Life Its Ownself" (the sequel to "Semi-Tough") uses Billy Clyde Puckett to elucidate his notions about what makes a good sports commentator. Billy Clyde is a "color commentator," specifically, which means he's there to fill in those quiet moments in those professional sports - of which there are dozens in your average NFL game. He's going to tell us all about what it's like to be a player. He's our connection with the men on the field. Billy Clyde's boss tells him to repeat the score every five minutes, answer questions from the play-by-play guy, and otherwise keep his mouth shut.
There are plenty of guys who don't want to follow those simple directions. They want to ramble on and on about their glory days, and how the guys playing today don't hit as hard or care as much or dance in the endzone the way they used to. Truth is, it used to take one guy to tell you what was happening out on the field - that was the play-by-play guy. Now we often get two color commentators in the booth, and one or two sideline reporters. Too much information. I need to know the score, and why the star running back isn't on the field. It's the playful banter in the broadcast booth that drives me nuts. What are they wearing under those pads? I don't want to know, thanks. This does not constitute analysis. Sticking a microphone in the face of a coach on the way off the field at halftime is not investigative reporting. "We're going to have to score more points in the second half" is not incisive or necessary information.
On Dec. 20, 1980, NBC aired the New York Jets at the Miami Dolphins. The Jets were 3-12 entering the game and the Dolphins were 8-7. (The Jets won 24-17). Since the game had no playoff implications, NBC decided to let the sounds from the stands and the PA announcer serve as the sole audio. No players were miked. Dick Enberg set the scene for viewers at the beginning of each quarter and then viewers were taken to the stadium. Once the game started, there was no "Oh my!" from Dick. No report from the locker room from Susie. Just the game. Okay - maybe the score every few minutes. And what's up with that guy in the rainbow afro anyway?

Monday, October 09, 2006

Don't Test Me

Where does a guy have to get in line to condemn North Korea for their nuclear weapons test? The U.N. is looking into possible sanctions against Pyongyang. It occurs to me that if there was a penalty for having a silly-sounding capital city, then these guys wouldn't see a pair of jeans or a shiny new Euro for a good long time. But enough about my own personal xenophobia - let's get back to the nuclear test.
What, exactly, is up with that? What sort of test is necessary to get this kind of thing right? Hasn't it been done enough already? John Pike, an independent U.S. intelligence expert, said the small yield could mean Pyongyang tested only the primary segment of a two-stage bomb. In such a device, a small primary implosion of perhaps a kiloton would emit a stream of X-rays to trigger a secondary fusion implosion. "They basically need to see if they have correctly understood how to get the X-rays from the primary to the secondary. A full yield test of the secondary would not be necessary," said Pike. Oh. Okay.
The U.S. Air Force dropped a 12.5-kiloton bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima in 1945. Oh. And there's that. Analysts say North Korea probably has enough fissile material to make six to eight bombs but probably lacks the technology to devise one small enough to mount on a missile. The axis of evil needs a little help, it would seem.
They're not going to get it from President Pinhead. He called it a "provocative act" that threatened international peace and security and required an immediate response from the
U.N. Security Council. Dangerous? Scary? Sure. Provocative? That would be more a Paris Hilton type thing. This is just another step on the trail toward mutually assured annihilation.
Should we be worried? You bet. Here's a list of other things to worry you: United States, Russia, United Kingdom, France, People's Republic of China, India, Pakistan, and now North Korea have nuclear weapons. Iran, Israel, and Saudi Arabia might have nuclear weapons. Who do you trust?
Now some good news: South Africa, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and the Ukraine have given up their nuclear stockpiles. Australia, Argentina, Brazil, Egypt, Japan, Libya, Poland, Romania, South Korea, Sweden, Switzerland, The Republic of China (Taiwan), and what's left of Yugoslavia are now regarded as those who currently no longer actively developing, or possessing, nuclear arms. South Korea and Japan are currently rethinking that stand, however.
Perhaps we should have less condemnation, and more contrition. I suggest instead a program of nuclear confession. Bless me Father, for I have proliferated...

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Tip Drill

I just finished doing a few home-improvement chores, and sat down at my computer to read a little news. This is the item that caught my eye: "NATO chief warns of Afghan tipping point." Maybe some of my more discreet and urban readers are unfamiliar with the rural pastime of cow tipping. There is a point on all bovine (just below the knees) where they are most readily toppled.
Imagine my chagrin when I read on to find out that General David Richards, a British officer who commands NATO's 32,000 troops in Afghanistan, told The Associated Press that he would like to have about 2,500 additional troops to form a reserve battalion to help speed up reconstruction and development efforts. The tipping point to which General Richards refers is this: "They (Afghans, not cows) will say, 'We do not want the Taliban but then we would rather have that austere and unpleasant life that might involve than another five years of fighting.'" If reconstruction doesn't begin, he estimates about seventy percent of Afghans could switch their allegiance from NATO to the Taliban.
While eight thousand U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan outside the control of NATO, the other twelve thousand are now under the command of General Richards as part of NATO's largest ground combat operation. Richards set a timetable of approximately six months to show progress toward rebuilding the country they are occupying. He seems to understand that there is more to this nation-building thing than blowing things up. Or tipping things over.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Designated Hitter

Yesterday afternoon, I was putting the finishing touches on my week at school. I put Monday's schedule on the board. I made a few copies. I straightened some desks. I put math tests in my bag to take home and grade. I was intentionally lingering on a Friday afternoon. I was lingering because I was also listening to the final three innings of the Oakland A's and Minnesota Twins playing game three in their American League Division Series.
When Marco Scutaro (anyone outside of the East Bay area will be excused for asking, "Who?") slapped a drive down the right field drive and drove in three runs, I fought back the urge to hoot and holler. I did raise my hands in the air as the score moved from a comfortable 5-2 lead to an insurmountable 8-2. My team was about to sweep the Twins and move along to play for the American League Championship.
It was good news for a change. It was happy news in a town that doesn't get a lot of it. I wasn't always an A's fan. When I moved to Oakland, I had expected to latch on to the Giants of San Francisco - the National League franchise. There is a deeply held belief in my family (okay, my brother and I) that everybody should have to hit, even the pitchers. I went to a few games at Candlestick (or Monster.com) Park and watched an upper-middle class crowd take in the show with a mixture of pride and smugness. I made the mistake - once - of wearing a Colorado Rockies cap to a Giants game. Fiercely loyal to the point of absurdity, Giants fans were ready to tear into anyone who wasn't "of the body." A few years passed, and I went out to see a game at their new telecommunications-related park. I can't for the life of me remember what company is currently holding the naming rights on their stadium. It's a nice place to watch a game - an even better place to watch a Bruce Springsteen concert. The snobbery of the Giants and their fans along with the ugly drama that is the Barry Bonds show kept me from rushing back.
By stark contrast, I was able to wander into the Oakland Coliseum (now sponsored by a computer security company - why?) and sit in the upper deck for a much lower price and watched the game with a group of knowledgeable fans. This is a much more urban, working class crowd. They love their team with the same passion as the folks across the bay, but are more tolerant of visitors, at times even welcoming. Sure, the pitchers don't have to bat, but you can watch the game without fearing for your life.
There is something about having a hometown connection. My son is proud to call the A's his team. He is fortunate to be born into a baseball world with a rich history: The 1989 "Earthquake Series," Reggie Jackson, Dennis Eckersly, Ricky Henderson, and now Marco Scutaro. It's a vicarious little thrill ride, but every day is a new chance. We're a line drive away from taking the lead, and that feels good.

Friday, October 06, 2006


"I like to tell people when the final history is written on Iraq, it will look like just a comma because there is -- my point is, there's a strong will for democracy."
From the UPI: U.S President George (Pinhead) Bush's comment in Arizona that the Iraq war would be "just a comma" in history books became more an exclamation point in lively debate.
Do we need more proof of just exactly what sort of Pinhead has taken up residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue? Tiny-brained, heartless Pinhead with the moral conscience and historical perspective of non-stick cookware. Pinhead's handlers are quick to try to shoot down the "hidden message" suggestion and the Washington Post pointed out it originated with comedian Gracie Allen and no religious text. Many religious Web sites, on the left and on the right, use Gracie's original quote: "Never place a period where God has placed a comma." The Great Communicator, Ronald "Gumby" Reagan would at least have given it a better line reading. Instead, we are left with a sloppy rendition of a partially formed thought. The Christian take on the phrase is that Jesus's death was the comma and that the rest of the world moved on from that moment in time.
That's comforting. Is Pinhead suggesting that the ill-advised and worse-fated mission into Iraq is in any way comparable to the resurrection? Or is he simply grasping at verbal straws as his approval rating shrivels and his part begins to pack their bags? Sadly, it would seem that this guy trips and falls on his own sword much more often than history's most noble klutz, Gerald Ford. Suggesting that Pinhead was sending some kind of hidden message would be akin to suggesting that Jerry, while being very athletic, was in fact quite graceful. Let's give credit where (and when) credit is due, shall we? Say goodnight, Gracie.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

The Hyper-Bowl

Former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark, a member of Saddam Hussein's defense team, suggested today that if his client were executed there would be a bloodbath. At a news conference, Mister Clark maintained "catastrophic violence" would follow that would lead to "the end of civilization as we know it in the birthplace of civilization, Mesopotamia. Total, unmitigated chaos."
I have the impression that Ramsey isn't following the news these days. At least 13 American soldiers have been killed around Baghdad since Monday. This is the highest four-day U.S. toll in the capital since the 2003 invasion. This number is likely to grow as the U.S.-led forces step up their campaign to root out the extremist militias, death squads and terrorist cells. U.S. commanders have defined victory as reducing violence in the capital to the point where Iraqi civilian police could handle security. U.S. officials won't say how they define defeat — insisting there is no choice but to win.
Meanwhile, back in Ramsey Clark's head, Saddam's Sunni Muslim tribe of one and a half million would be enraged over what they would consider the revenge killing of the former president by the Shiite-controlled and U.S.-sponsored government. I find myself wondering just how one would notice that level of chaos in the midst of all the chaos in which we find ourselves currently engaged. In a recent interview,General George Casey, the top U.S. general in Iraq, told The Associated Press that Baghdad is "the center of gravity for the country. Everybody knows that." And so it would seem that we find ourselvesengagedd in a battle not just for truth, justice and the American Way of Life, but for the very Laws of Physics. These are heady times, indeed.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006


Today, as an icebreaker at the beginning of our meeting, we were asked to share our favorite children's book. The smart aleck in me reached immediately for "Lord of the Flies," but then I thought again. I knew what the real answer was. I listened patiently while other teachers brought up their personal recollections of reading and being read to: "Where The Red Fern Grows," "Ramona the Pest."
I started to flinch when the guy next to me said that he always loved "Where The Wild Things Are." My mind immediately filled with the illustrations from the pages of Maurice Sendak's masterpiece. They rolled their terrible eyes, and clawed their terrible claws. And the wild rumpus. My son's middle name is Max, after all. I could feel myself being swayed.
Then I stopped and focused on my original thought: "Charlotte's Web." I remember the sounds and smells of that barn as well as I remember my childhood home. I can see the web, glistening with morning dew: "Some Pig." I love to read it aloud to my kids. The goose talking so very fast and repeating repeating words that make me smile. Templeton is a rat with the proverbial heart of gold, but he is still a rat. And Charlotte? Who better to introduce young pigs and young children to the wonders and harsh realities of life?
I have yet to get through the last two chapters without getting completely choked up. My son, the realist, looked at me and wondered what the big deal was. I tried to explain about how Wilbur was finding out how hard it is to lose a friend. I thought about a discussion of the loss of innocence might be a little premature, so I exhaled and told him that I believed that Wilbur was very lucky to have a friend like Charlotte. My son agreed.
I know someday he'll read "Charlotte's Web" to his kids. And it will be his favorite book then, too.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Excuses, Excuses

Working in an elementary school affords me endless opportunities to hear a litany of excuses for the many and sundry offenses that life offers up in our hallways, classrooms and playground. "Why did you punch him in the head?"
"He was messin' with me."
"Messin' with" seems to cover a large variety of perceived slights, most of which cannot be adequately described by your garden variety eight to twelve year old. I recommend that no one messes with anyone so that no one will end up getting punched in the head.
Another frequently heard line of reasoning is this: "My mom told me I had to (fill in the blank)." Most of the time this is used to explain why a larger student has chosen to inflict some sort of bodily harm on a smaller, but usually more annoying classmate. This, I am told, is "fighting back" because his or her parents insist that they "defend themselves." About half of the time, a phone call home reveals that the kid is simply reflecting back the training that they have soaked up at home.
You get the idea. Kids will be kids. And Congressmen will be congressmen - then send filthy text messages to kids. Former Republican Representative (former for both, I suspect, since the Republicans have already voted them off their island) Mark Foley said, through his lawyer, that he was molested between ages thirteen and fifteen. He declined to identify the clergyman or the church, but Foley is Roman Catholic. At this point, savor our Constitutionally guaranteed separation between church and state.
Charles Carl Roberts IV, the psychopath who shot up the Amish school yesterday, explained in his suicide note that the death of his prematurely born daughter in 1997 haunted him. "I haven't been the same since it affected me in a way I never felt possible. I am filled with so much hate, hate toward myself hate towards God and unimaginable emptyness it seems like everytime we do something fun I think about how Elise wasn't here to share it with us and I go right back to anger." That's why he felt compelled to go to an Amish school and molest and torture young girls before he took his own life. A sad, sick story.
What can we learn from this moral train wreck of a week? Maybe accepting responsibility for one's actions is a lesson best learned early in life. Before age thirteen. Before getting elected to Congress.

Monday, October 02, 2006

A Case of the Mondays

Last week, the morning after the shootings at yet another Colorado high school, the folks on the radio read the recap of the story on the news and then segued into the Boomtown Rats' "I Don't Like Mondays." For those of you unfamiliar with the tune, here's an excerpt:
"and the playing stopped in the playground now
she wants to play with her toys a while
and school's out early and soon we'll be learning
the lesson today is how to die"
Written by Sir Bob "Feed The World" Geldof, it was inspired by actual events. On 29 January 1979, 16-year-old Brenda Ann Spencer opened fire on children arriving at Cleveland Elementary School in San Diego from her house across the street, killing two men and wounding eight students and a police officer. Principal Burton Wragg was attempting to rescue children in the line of fire when he was shot and killed, and custodian Mike Suchar was slain attempting to aid Wragg. Spencer used a rifle her father had given her as a gift. As to what impelled her into this form of murderous madness, she told a reporter,''I don't like Mondays. This livens up the day.''
In 1979, I confess I gnawed on this bit of arcane mental illness and reveled briefly in the extreme oddness of it. A quarter century later, I find myself in the front of a classroom wondering when it became so easy to kill. Today, a milk-truck driver carrying three guns and a childhood grudge stormed a one-room Amish schoolhouse, sent the boys and adults outside, barricaded the doors with two-by-fours, and then opened fire on a dozen girls, killing three people before committing suicide. Add this to an attack last week at Platte Canyon High School in Bailey, Colorado, where a man singled out several girls as hostages in a school classroom and then killed one of them and himself. Authorities said the man in Colorado sexually molested the girls.
If you really have a death wish, why not strap some egg cartons to your chest with duct tape and run screaming through the security checkpoint at your local airport shouting, "Death to America! I've got a bomb!" Better yet, why not drop a four-slice toaster into your next bath? I have a hard time imagining that this recent wave of shootings doesn't begin and end with the voracious beast that is twenty-four hour network media news. Or maybe it's "Grand Theft Auto." Or perhaps Marilyn Manson. Or maybe there is a silicon chip in our heads that gets switched to overload.
Whatever the source, we're left with more aftermath. Broken glass and shattered minds - picking up the pieces and wincing in anticipation of the next one. The first things I remember learning in teacher school were Maslow's hierarchy of needs. The second one, right after things like food, water and air, was safety. As new teachers, we were asked to ensure that our classrooms were safe places where learning could take place. Not today. Not this Monday.
Tell me why?
I don't like Mondays.
I want to shoot
The whole day down.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

One Small Step For Grammaticians...

As a fourth grade teacher, I have a certain degree of patience (that is very little) for bad grammar and usage. I have a standing threat for the kids in my room that says that I will swat them in the back of the head if they use an apostrophe in a plural. So far, the threat has been sufficient, but there's still an element of danger in written language for my students.
So how would I feel if one of them grew up to be the first person to set foot on Mars, and they said, "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind?" I want to believe that I would be so impressed with the accomplishment that the missing article ("a man") wouldn't be my initial concern. But over time - seeing it on coffee mugs, plaques, t-shirts, and hearing the tape loop played endlessly - it might start to grate on me that one of my students was clever enough to manage interplanetary travel, but not practiced enough to come up with the proper grammar to announce the momentous occasion.
Imagine how relieved Neil Armstrong must feel, thirty-seven years after the fact, to find that poor recording techniques may be to blame for his omission at Tranquility Base. In a graphical representation of the famous phrase, computer programmer Peter Shann Ford said he found evidence that the missing "a" was spoken and transmitted to NASA. Imagine the relief he must feel, knowing that he no longer has to wait in fear of his fourth grade teacher sneaking up on him and whacking him in the head.